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the organ

Learning the least accessible instrument

Why would anyone choose to learn a musical instrument which is too large and expensive for almost every home, and only accessible if one is prepared to brave a lonely, cold, and dark old building? You guessed it: we are talking about the pipe organ.

Yet despite this, the instrument continues to attract players of every age and for good reasons. Nothing beats the sound of the organ, with its multitude of tone colours, or the fun of making music by controlling a huge instrument with hands and feet. What is more, the organ offers unique opportunities for making music, with its distinctive expressive possibilities, and its repertoire from the simplest music to the most complex. This means that almost everyone, regardless of technical ability, can find something to enjoy.

Various organists’ bodies have been working hard in recent years to attract and support organists from diverse backgrounds, including in the UK the Royal College of Organists (RCO) and the Society of Women Organists. And don’t think that organists are solitary types: far from preferring their lonely organ lofts, most organists are remarkably sociable and love attending the many courses and social gatherings where they can make friends and share experiences. Why not join them, and learn to play the organ yourself?

If you do learn the organ, we heartily recommend that you find yourself a professional organ teacher. As readers of these blogs doubtless know, good teaching speeds you to the standard you seek, paces your progress for maximum enjoyment, and—particularly important for organists—constantly checks your technique to help you avoid backache and wrist problems.

Finding a professional organ teacher used to be fraught with challenges but has greatly improved in recent years. In the past it was perhaps understandable that beginners at the organ would ask any local organist for lessons, regardless of whether that organist had any knowledge or experience of how to teach the organ. All too often the teacher had previously learned from an under-qualified teacher, too, and thus a cycle of poor playing was perpetuated. But now, not only are there more professional organists available who regard teaching the instrument as a profession, the 2020 lockdown has prompted many of them to teach online, making tuition available even in remote areas.

To find a teacher in the UK we suggest that you begin by visiting the RCO’s Find an Organ Teacher page. The 29 teachers listed are all qualified organists accredited by the RCO, which subjects each of them to relevant checks regarding qualifications and experience, and those relevant to child protection and vulnerable adult matters. All these accredited teachers work to a set of guidelines, they undergo continuous professional development, and they offer teaching to all ages and standards, flexible enough to suit all lifestyles. If the above list does not cover your area, you might consider asking the RCO to recommend one of its teachers to offer you online tuition. If the RCO cannot help, search other online listings of professional organ teachers for someone local to you.

However you find a teacher, it is vital to ask the right questions before going ahead, such as:

  • What previous keyboard experience does the teacher require in a beginner organist? Most, but not all, teachers expect some proficiency on piano, up to about ABRSM grade 5, before starting on the organ.
  • What relevant qualifications does the teacher have? Fellow of the Royal College of Organist (FRCO) is still probably the most significant marker of excellence for organists.
  • If you are satisfied with the teacher’s qualifications, ask about their experience as an organ teacher. A brilliant player is not necessarily a brilliant teacher!
  • Ask for details of the printed resources that the teacher uses and check that the teacher mentions a training manual, because the quickest way to lay a firm foundation is to learn exercises alongside graded repertoire.
  • Search online for details of any training manual the teacher mentions, and check it was written no more than 30 years ago; ideally more recently. This is because organists’ understanding of the style and technique applicable to playing repertoire written before 1800 has undergone a fundamental change in recent years.
  • Ask if you may start with a consultation lesson, rather than signing on immediately for a term of lessons. That way you can assess the teacher’s skills without making a long-term commitment.

Good luck and enjoy the King of Instruments!

Featured image: Historic pipe organ at a church by FooTToo via Shutterstock

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